Michael Vechell had drawn the attention of an airline worker and two passengers at Los Angeles International Airport by the time he was confronted by police. Waiting to board a Philadelphia-bound flight, Vechell had prompted concern when he asked another passenger if she wanted to join his “drug smuggling ring,” authorities say. Although he told airport police it was a misunderstanding, officers demanded to see his checked baggage. They found nearly 70 pounds of vacuum-sealed marijuana bundled into packages labeled “T-shirts,” “cold weather” and “sexy pants,” the Los Angeles Times reports. More than a year after California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, arrests like Vechell’s have surged 166 percent at LAX.
Emboldened by legalization and facing only light punishment if captured, more smugglers are taking to the friendly skies to escape California’s glutted cannabis market. The world’s fourth-largest airport is an expanding hub in the illegal export of marijuana. “This is normal procedure for these guys, and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem,” said Bill Kroger Jr., a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. LAX authorities are encountering more passengers who are carrying small amounts of pot for personal use; the number of checked bags stuffed full of marijuana has soared as well. Police in Oakland and Sacramento are seeing the same thing. The increase in airport smuggling is largely the result of legalization and a saturated market. California grows far more marijuana than its residents consume – up to five times more by some accounts – and cannabis users in other states pay a much higher price.